Racing 101: A Brief History of America’s Early Horse Racing Scene

Long before football fields and baseball diamonds began popping up across the United States, another sport swept across the nation: horse racing. Horses provided early American settlers with everything from transportation to companionship. Thus, it’s only natural they looked to them for entertainment as well.

However, the sport didn’t rise to astounding levels of popularity overnight. American horse racing would grow to be the spectacle it is today in tandem with the expansion of the nation.

In this quick history lesson, we’ll explore the early days of American horse racing and explain some key milestones in its over 400-year history.

This photo, circa. 1920, shows two horses rounding the first turn at a track in Lexington, Kentucky. Credit: The Library of Congress.

Before Tracks: America’s First Horses and Races

Horse racing is one of the world’s oldest sports and its history in the US predates the very foundation of the nation. The country’s first race horses reached the eastern seaboard in the early 1600s—well before the continent’s first tracks or jockey and driver clubs.

Thus, these early American equines likely competed in informal, unregulated circuits—a far cry from the grandiose and opulent experience of going to a modern race [1]. In about a half-century, however, Americans would begin building the types of tracks that had been in the Old World for millennia.


Horse Racing Takes Hold in the Northeast

America’s first track was established in what’s now Long Island, New York in 1665—over a century before the Founding Fathers began writing the constitution [2]. This elongated oval race course was founded by then governor Richard Nicholls, who named it Newmarket in honor of the famous down in Suffolk County, England [3]. While this first track signaled the start of organized racing on the continent, it didn’t stop the informal nature of early American equestrianism.

Henrico County, Virginia, was a hotbed of action for early jockeys, drivers, and racing fanatics near the end of the 16th century. Its straight, centralized roads were perfect for sprint races—a pastime that, at the time, was legally reserved for society’s most affluent and noble.

Despite being barred from participating, laborers would often challenge each other to street races down the area’s main drags. Surviving records from the 1600s show these young men competed for more than honor, with common wagers including [4]:

  • Tobacco
  • “Caske” or barrels and their (likely alcoholic) contents
  • Cash
  • The settlement of debts

These same records also show a familiar, standardized length for many of these early races: one-quarter of a mile [4]. It’s from these first street races and subsequent, more organized operations in 1700s Virginia and Rhode Island that the name and practice of Quarter Horse Racing was born [3].

This ad features the 1899 racing schedule for the Coney Island Jockey Club in Sheepshead Bay, one of the nation’s early jockey clubs. Credit: The Library of Congress.

The First Jockey and Driver Clubs

Despite horse racing slowly starting to spread across colonial America, opinions were split on its value and validity. There were several reasons early opponents of the sport challenged its practice, including [1] [5]:

  • The danger of being trampled while spectating races on narrow city streets
  • The prohibitions against commoners created unfavorable class divisions
  • More puritanical settlers despising the competition and gambling associated with racing

Regardless of these legal challenges, America’s new elite derived profound pleasure from racing and, by 1734, the country’s first Jockey Club was established in Charleston, South Carolina. This wealthy collection of horse owners and breeders was responsible for organizing some of the continent’s first tournaments complete with trophies and cash prizes [5].

Harness racing was a bit slower to develop on the continent and didn’t really take off until after America’s independence. Throughout the 1800s, informal versions of the sport were being practiced at tracks across the expanding nation. It wasn’t until the 1870 establishment of the National Trotting Association in New York City, however, that harness and standardbred racing would begin being regulated in the US [6].

This print of a lithograph by James Fuller Queen depicts a harness race at the U.S. Agricultural Society’s Fair, held in West Philadelphia on October 7-11, 1856. Credit: The Library of Congress.

Horse Racing Breaks into Pennsylvania

Like other early colonies, Pennsylvania has had a complicated, yet fascinating history with horse racing. Despite thriving harness and thoroughbred communities, gambling bans all but made breeding race horses illegal in The Quaker State during the 1800s.

To circumvent these restrictions, owners bred horses for labor, transportation, and racing. These resilient athletes kept the sport alive and thriving throughout the 18th century and, in defiance of the state’s unjust legislation, tracks, tournaments, and riding associations began popping up all over Pennsylvania.


Travel Through Time with the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Association

Horse racing has come a long way since the early days of American settlement. It’s no longer a sport of illegal street races or a pastime reserved for the upper echelons of society. A day at the races is now an accessible, exhilarating experience that the whole family can enjoy.

That doesn’t mean modern racing is fully removed from its fascinating past, however. Rules and rituals from those early races in Long Island and Henrico County still persist to this day—and you can experience them at any of the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Association’s (PHRA) opulent tracks.

Harness racehorses near the finish line at Harrah’s Philadelphia.

Feel the full force of 400 years of horse racing history by browsing the PHRA’s events page and racing schedule and getting in on the action at our next race. Then, discover just how far the sport has come by signing up to be a Wager Warrior and gaining instant access to insider information such as past performances and expert betting tips. This PHRA-exclusive data will give you a leg up on the competition and help you place more informed bets than those early settlers could have ever dreamed of.

The PHRA has learned from four centuries of American equestrianism to provide spectators with unforgettable track experiences. Thank you to all our fans and those who paved the way for racing excellence in the United States and beyond.




[1] “History of Racing.” University of Arizona. Accessed November 17, 2023.

[2] “EARLY HORSE RACING IN PENNSYLVANIA.” Pennsylvania Horse Racing Association. Accessed November 17, 2023.

[3] “Horse Racing in Colonial America and the Early Republic.” Norfolk Towne Assembly. August 1 , 2020. Accessed November 20, 2023.

[4] “Racing in Colonial Virginia.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. January, 1895. Accessed November 20, 2023.

[5] “Off to the Races.” Smithsonian Magazine. August, 2004. Accessed November 20, 2023. [6] “The First Modern Sport in America: Harness Racing in New York City, 1825-1870.” Journal of Sport History, 1981. Accessed November 20, 2023.

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